Naamal De Silva
Last month, Facebook suggested that I organize a birthday celebration for Ines Cifuentes. I wish I could! After a seven-year battle with breast cancer, Ines died three years ago at the age of 59. The last time we saw each other, we chatted over brunch at my house and I introduced her to my daughter, who was about 2 months old at the time.
Ines transcended easy categorization: she was Hispanic, Jewish, American, born in London, raised in Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and the United States. She graduated from Swarthmore College 25 years before I did. Like me, she found a refuge there, among fellow students who “cannot accept things as they are and are working to change them for the better.”
Ines shifted from astronomy to seismology after college. She wrote of that time in life, “I knew that I wanted to balance my love of science with my passion for political work, but I didn’t know how.” She began finding this balance during field research with the US Geological Survey in Nicaragua and Guatemala. Believing strongly in the importance of equipping people to prepare for earthquakes, Ines took the time to explain the meaning of her work to local villagers. She went on to become the first woman to receive a doctorate in seismology from Columbia University.
When I met Ines in 1999, she was director of the Carnegie Academy for Science Education, which she and Maxine Singer established in 1993 using a grant from the National Science Foundation. Each summer, Ines trained about a hundred elementary school teachers in hands-on math and science instruction. During the school year, she visited classrooms and provided support to these and other DC public school teachers. I worked for her twice – during college and also after graduate school, since it took me about six months to find a full time job. During those summers, I heard teachers’ exclamations of surprise and joy as they made discoveries of their own while practicing lessons meant for elementary school students. Many of these teachers had never experienced these emotions when they were students themselves: their own teachers had prioritized memorizing lists and tables. Over the years, some participants went on to become mentor teachers, eventually numbering about 50 incredibly creative and skilled individuals.
Working with Ines helped me understand the power of communicating ideas using methods that were context-based, personal, and emotionally engaging. Ines said, “science has given me a special view of the world. It has taught me to think critically, ask questions, and persevere.” Ines told science stories, but she also told her personal story and said that, “we must all become storytellers.” Understanding that science, education, human rights and the arts are deeply interconnected, Ines advocated for each of these.
When I first came up with the idea for Mayla last November, I was inspired in part by the words and work of Ines Cifuentes. At the time, I said that what I wanted to do was to “turn science into story.” Science is driven by the passion, excitement, pain, and joy of numerous individuals. Through Mayla, we hope to connect scientists who study and protect the environment with artists who can help shape their stories using beauty, humor and emotion.